Sketchnoting

When listening to a speaker, usually I genuinely want to listen and learn (while else would I be there?), but sometimes paying attention can be a challenge even with the most engaging speakers. A few years ago I searched for tips on how to better pay attention to speakers and I came across sketchnoting. Sketchnotes are basically little pictures and words instead of traditional written notes. You may have seen a professional sketchnoter at a conference. There is even a TED talk about them!

sketchnotes

I found Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Handbook and I thought I would give sketchnoting a try. My take: sketchnotes are awesome. And I am terrible at drawing. Like really terrible. But even with my limited drawing ability, sketchnotes work great for me.

Sketchnoting forces you to pay attention and find the key ideas of any talk. The act of having to draw a concept really focuses the brain on what is actually being said. You pick out the important stuff and I have found my retention is greatly improved.

Going back later and reviewing sketchnotes is also a much better experience than traditional notes. The pictures act as a trigger to bring back the memories of the moment. Even the context around what was said is more easily recalled than with traditional note taking.

I have tried sketchnoting on paper notebooks and an iPad. The iPad can be cooler as it has different colors and brush styles, but it can also be a distraction (dang you twitter). Both forms work; the key is having a notebook with you.

A friend of mine actually sketchnoted his entire MBA experience. Check out his book The Visual MBA on Amazon. There are also a bunch of sketchnotes on Instagram.

visual mba

You can find me on Twitter @rhettweller or drop me a note.

Job Interviewing Tips

A few weeks ago I was invited to be on a job interview tips panel at San Jose State University hosted by the Latino Business Student Association. Having lived in Chile for 2 years and having Latino family, I was honored to be invited. I was also impressed! The students questions were insightful and they are far more prepared to enter the business world than I was in college.

Aside from the usual interview tips like attire, be on time, research the company and job, general preparation, and sending a thank you note, here is some additional thoughts I have had on how to do well in the job interview. As with all advice, take it with a grain of salt. I might be wrong 🙂

vince vaughn stock image sm

Know Your Story

The first question is either “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume”. This is your moment to shine, to make that first impression. You should know your story down cold. You should be able to concisely explain your history and how it has led to that moment and why you are perfect for the company and the role. Know what makes you stand out. The key is practice. Practice a 30-90 second elevator pitch on why you are awesome. Practice A LOT. All the time and over long period of time. Practice with friends, family, neighbors, whoever. If you can tailor your pitch for the job you are interviewing for, even better. It has to feel natural in the interview and not rehearsed. Confident, but not cocky.

Know the Role and the Company

Before going into the interview you should know what job you are applying for and the company.  Do as much research beforehand has possible. Talk to people at the company, former employees, do internet research, and whatever it takes to be prepared. Know their business model, products, and company culture. If they are a public company, listen to and internalize the latest earnings call (the Q&A at the end can be especially insightful). A friend of mine was interviewing for a sales role at a hot startup. He pitched the company’s product in the interview. The interviewer had never seen that before and was impressed with his knowledge. He got the job.

Don’t Recite Memorized Answers

In finance interviews, many times a candidate will be asked “what is our stock price?” and usually they will answer with the price they looked up that morning. But instead of replying with an answer like “54.62”, how much better would it be if they said “it’s trading around $50-55 per share, but the impressive part is the y/y growth is about 20% which tells me the company is on  a good trajectory”? The first answer is technically more accurate, but the second is by far the better answer. It shows the person really has done their homework.

Ask Insightful Questions

They will almost always give you time to ask questions. This part can be tricky. You want to convey your knowledge and passion for the company, but it has to be meaningful to you. Don’t ask a question just to sound smart. The interviewer sees right through it and can tell when you googled the company that day and pulled something from a headline. Be prepared for the “boomerang” of a question being turned back around on you. Only ask questions that you genuinely want to know the answers to and think the person would have specific knowledge on that question. A recruiter will not know about the latest acquisition or shift in corporate strategy. A marketing person will probably have thoughts on the shift of ad spend to new platforms away from traditional media. Know your interviewer.

Follow up with Value

When you send your follow up thank you note, add something that provides value. Whether it’s a link to an interesting article you read or a follow up to something discussed in the interview, adding something extra to the standard “thank you” is a good way to stand out.

Qualities I Look For

There are 3 qualities I look for in a candidate.

  1. Hard work with progression. It matters less exactly what you were doing and more that you were working hard to get things done. I also want to see an increase in responsibilities over time and a desire to improve things.
  2. Trust and reliability. Can I trust you to get things done accurately and on time? Will you admit to a mistake when you make it rather than cover it up? Can I count on you when the going gets tough? Will you help others even if it has no direct tie to your role?
  3. Intellectual curiosity. Are you invested in the work we are doing and do you want to learn more about it? It doesn’t matter if the subject is boring, I want to see that you want to know the “why” behind things and that you care about the business we are in.

Unless the job is really specific, less important to me are the technical skills. If you are a hard worker and have the intellectual curiosity to learn more, you can learn the technical skills.

And finally, be yourself! Don’t create a work persona version of yourself. There is obviously ways to behave at work versus in your personal life. But don’t make up things that aren’t true about you. It rarely works and if it does, the job probably isn’t for you anyway.

You can find me on Twitter @rhettweller

Getting Rid of Operational Debt – A Light Bulb Moment

light bulbWhen was the last time you researched light bulbs? It’s one of those small things in life that we don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about. Bulbs go out, we buy new ones, and replace them. It’s what we have always done right? When a friend told me I could cut my home electricity bill in half by replacing all of my old 65 watt light bulbs with LED 8.5 watt bulbs I didn’t believe him. There had to be a catch right?

Turns out there is no catch. Well at least not anymore. LED bulbs used to cost around $10 a bulb making their payback period really long. Now they are less than a dollar on Amazon. They give off the same brightness, illuminate immediately, and use about 13% of the electricity required of a more traditional bulb. So what was stopping me from reducing my electricity bill?

Technical debt is a concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer. Outside of the software world, many of us experience what I call “Operational Debt”. Similar to technical debt, operational debt is the ongoing overheard/tax we pay by not taking the time to make processes more efficient. For the light bulbs in my house, it was the upfront cost of researching which bulbs to buy, buying them, and the hour or so of labor to replace them.

In my current job, I own the revenue forecast and actual reporting for a large portion of our services business. I have an incredible team that does an amazing job each month making sure we are as accurate as possible with our forecast and reporting. The nature of the work is very demanding, especially during our month end close and forecasting periods. Even though we are really good at what we do, over time we have built up a lot of “operational debt” in the form of inefficient processes resulting in sub-optimal performance. This is business school speak for “the process works, but if I had time I would improve it.” As you can imagine, the processes that need the most improvement coincide directly to the busiest times of the month.

And while I felt like my team was already performing at a high level, it was time to get rid of our operational debt.

A few days before our latest close and forecast weeks, I proposed that as we went through our normal processes everyone should take notes on needed improvements. We wouldn’t try to clean up anything right away, just note it down. After the forecast week, we had a short meeting to compare notes and divide the work among the team. I then blocked everyone’s calendar for an entire day and suggested they turn on their out of office status. This is critical not only to give a sense of priority, but to provide managerial cover to avoid distractions. During the day we checked in on each other’s progress and provided support and suggestions.

The results were incredible! A small sample of what we accomplished:

  • Forecast model enhancements
  • New automatic reporting capability
  • Linking to systematic data sourcing
  • New metrics
  • Allocation file simplifications and enhancements
  • Transition documentation for our rotational analyst

Even simple formatting changes were huge upgrades as it eases the mental energy needed to understand complex models. All of these refinements improved our team’s agility and speed for when it’s needed most (business school translation: it makes our jobs much easier which let’s us do more.)

One consequence I had not anticipated was the increased energy and excitement around this project. Operational debt tends to weigh on the minds of high performers. Given the chance and the managerial support to do it, people will jump at the chance to improve processes and work streams. Spring cleaning always feels good after it’s over right?

I would highly recommend holding a “remove operational debt” day. With proper planning and prioritizing, it can dramatically improve your team’s performance.

Oh and yes, my electricity bill was cut almost in half 🙂

You can find me on Twitter @rhettweller or drop me a note.

Bridge Graphs in Excel

In Excel 2016, there is a “waterfall” chart that can be used to make bridges. Bridges are great for graphically showing drivers of change. It is fairly new so it can be a little buggy, but if you are like me, bridges can be cumbersome in Excel. This new chart functionality is a huge time saver!

Example:
bridge graph

Here are the instructions:

  1. Setup and highlight the data:
    bridge data
  2. Click on Insert -> Recommended Charts -> All Charts
  3. Select “Waterfall”
    waterfall chart
  4. To format the last bar to be a total, select the last bar only by clicking it twice (not double click) so only that bar is selected. Then right click and chose “Set as Total”
    bridge total
  5. Format the chart by removing grid lines, legend, and axis if desired.

A more thorough guide can be found here: https://www.myexcelonline.com/blog/create-waterfall-chart-excel-2016/

Once again this functionality only available in Excel 2016, but it’s a great way to graphically show change drivers. Let me know if you have any questions!

Quick =Forecast() Trick in Excel

If you use Excel as much as I do, you know that forecasting models can be complex and take a fair amount of time to set up. But if you need a quick forecast model, here is a neat trick: use the FORECAST function.

This FORECAST function only works if you have a time series. For example, let’s say you have monthly revenue numbers for the part of the year and you want to forecast the remaining. Assuming revenue is fairly stable over time, you can use the FORECAST function formula without having to calculate the statistical formula.

Example:

forecast function

Microsoft has a guide on the the 5 different types of Excel forecast functions.

An advanced version of this function is the Forecast Sheet function which gives a confidence interval table and a pretty graph.

forecast graph

A few words of caution, using linear regression to do a forecast implies the past can predict the future and depending on the correlation of the data to time, it can have varying degrees of results. Also, if you have a limited data sent (less than 15 data points), then you also lose correlation.  I recommend using this trick only as an improvement over doing a run rate based forecast or % growth forecast.*

That said, this trick can be an easy way to impress your boss and coworkers by saying you used a linear regression forecast model 🙂

* For you stat people, yes I know this trick violates most rules of statistical significance, p-values, and other principles of stats if the sample size is too small or if there is not a high enough correlation. It’s a quick trick to be used in a pinch that’s an improvement over a run rate.

Mandatory PTO

Recently Ellen Pao tweeted:

pto tweetMy reply was off the cuff, but given the likes it’s worth exploring a bit more.

Many companies use unlimited PTO as a benefits selling point. At first it sounds great. “Unlimited PTO?! Awesome! I can finally take that 2 week vacation in order to (fill in the blank).” The sad reality is that in many companies the benefit isn’t used at all. In most company cultures it’s hard to ask for time off. For those who have a capped PTO policy (use it or lose it), at least the conversation starter of “hey I’m going to lose some PTO unless I take it” is helpful in getting employees to take time off.

Unlimited PTO is not formally tracked and therefore managers aren’t sure how much time off an employee has taken. Those who do exercise more than a perceived “normal” amount of PTO could experience resentment from others or even be seen as less dedicated employees. If a person does take prolonged PTO, there could even be sense of uncertainty regarding their job security. This incentives employees to actually take less PTO.

By contrast, mandatory PTO solves all of the above issues and even adds more benefits. Not only does it encourage employees to take a break from the grind (the entire point of having PTO), it implicitly forces flexibility in work assignments and having a backup for all crucial tasks. This minimizes risk of a single point of failure and the chance of a rogue employee doing nefarious things. It also limits the company’s financial liability as employees use their PTO instead of sitting on it for years to be cashed out.

If companies really want a benefits selling point about how much they care for their employees, they should adopt a mandatory PTO policy of 2 weeks each year and an additional 2-4 weeks that can be accrued and rolled over. Managers should be held responsible to make sure all of their employees take their PTO.

By aligning the behavior incentives with the actual policy, both employees and companies would benefit.

Online Writers: Who to Read

I’m not a skilled enough writer to have my own newsletter (yet?), but here is a list of online writers I enjoy reading. Many have weekly newsletters. A few have published books (actually valuable business books. So rare!) At the least they are worth following on Twitter.

Ben Thompson at Stratechery – my absolute favorite writer about tech and business models. I’ve been following Ben since his early days of writing. His work has dramatically changed how I think about the tech industry and business models. It’s the only online content I pay for and it’s worth every penny. Even if you don’t subscribe, his free weekly article and podcast (Exponent) are incredibly valuable. Aggregation theory might be the most important theory in tech since the innovator’s dilemma (which he wrote about here). Is that enough fanboyism? Ok I’ll stop now.

Tren Griffin at 25iq –  Tren is a huge fan of Charlie Munger (as am I) and has written about him and Warren Buffett extensively. His back catalog of posts are “Lessons from ___” and are still very valuable reads. He writes a lot about subscription economics and I learned about wholesale transfer pricing from his writing.

Annie Duke at AnnieDuke.com – Annie is best known for success in the poker world, but her book Thinking in Bets and weekly newsletter are great resources on how to think in probabilities and how it relates to decision making.

M.G. Siegler at 500ish.com – M.G. is a former Techcrunch writer and current blogger about the tech industry. His newsletters are tech-centric and include his thoughtful opinions.

Shane Parrish at Farnham Street – Shane is one of those people who are just smart and like to think about how to get smarter. His writing and podcasts are great self-improvement resources (and I’m a big skeptic of anything labeled “self-improvement”).

Mike Dariano at The Waiter’s Pad – Mike is under the radar right now, but his “Mike’s Notes” articles and podcast are great resources for real life business principles.

Dave Kellogg at kellblog.com – Dave is a tech guy through and through. He has a lot of great thoughts on management and is very knowledgeable about SaaS businesses and models. He’ll even post a spreadsheet example if needed.

Adam Grant at adamgrant.net – Dr. Grant is an organizational behavior professor at Wharton. His book Give and Take is a must read. His newsletter has insightful nuggets on human behavior. His podcast Work Life is also great.

Tyler Cowen at marginalrevolution.com – Dr. Cowen is an econ professor at George Mason. His website covers topics from business, econ, law, political science, and many other things. His podcast Conversations with Tyler has some incredible guests.

Morgan Housel at Collaborative Fund – I stumbled upon Morgan when he was writing for the Motley Fool. His writing would be classified as “investing”, but I it’s much more than that.

Scott Galloway at L2inc – Professor Galloway is a marketing professor at NYU and head of L2 marketing consulting. His youtube videos are witty and fun, even if I disagree with some of his opinions. His weekly newsletter is “let it bleed” honest.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball – John is the consummate Apple blogger. His opinions on anything Apple are worth reading. His podcast The Talk Show is great as well (although at times a bit lengthy).

Trevor McKendrick at Howitactuallyworks.com – Trevor has a weekly newsletter called  with links to interesting articles and usually a short blog style post.

Nathan Tanner at nathantanner.net – Nathan wrote a book called “Not Your Parents Workplace”. If you are considering a career change or are a young professional, I recommend it. He also publishes a monthly personal development newsletter sharing books and articles.

For fun, I’m a huge sports fan and I visit theringer.com almost every day. I read pretty much anything Bill Simmons writes (which is sadly not as much as it used to be).